Back to the drawing board?

August 18, 2020

The arts and cultures are part of the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, not an optional extra. The work of artists, writers and musicians during this time will help us heal and come to terms with our collective trauma. Richard Dawson speaks to Sunderland Culture’s Rebecca Ball, an optimist by nature, about how the city’s flourishing creative ecology will endure despite the odds

“I think the creative sector across the North East will find a way through this, will find new ways of doing things, and will adapt to changing circumstances,” Rebecca Ball, creative director at Sunderland Culture says of the current coronavirus pandemic.

Is she right? It’s one of the most urgent questions for the region’s arts and cultures – will the sector find a way to reinvent itself or will much of the cultural capital that has been building over recent years ebb away in the aftermath of a historic economic crisis?

In many ways, that is the challenge for us all. Will we figure out how to do things differently as individuals, businesses and communities or will we have to go back to the drawing board and abandon the progress we have made?

There are good reasons to be optimistic and, as Rebecca says, “you have to be optimistic, don’t you?”

For the creative sector, hope comes in the form of a £1.57 billion Government rescue package announced on July 5 to protect Britain’s ‘world class’ theatres, heritage sites, museums, arts centres, cinemas and concert halls.

Rebecca says: “It’s excellent news that the Government has decided to make such a significant investment in the cultural sector.

“It’s a real vote of confidence and I hope it will contribute to ensuring artists, creative organisations and venues in Sunderland are able to fully recover from the challenges they have faced due to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Sunderland’s cultural regeneration is one of its biggest success stories in recent years. Although the city was ultimately unsuccessful in its 2021 UK City of Culture bid, the work that was put in during that process has enabled new partnerships to crystallise and leveraged in lots of cultural investment.

Rebecca Ball worked on the 2021 bid and is now creative lead of the organisation that sprang up alongside it.

Sunderland Culture manages National Glass Centre, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, The Fire Station and Arts Centre Washington as well as a citywide programme of activities and events.

It’s an organisation that was founded to bring together cultural assets and realise the city’s creative potential.

That mission took a big hit back in March when Sunderland’s cultural assets, along with all other venues across the UK, were ordered to close, with performances and exhibitions months in the making cancelled at a stroke.

Rebecca describes the financial impact of the closures as “significant” but is confident that recovery is possible, particularly now that museums and galleries are allowed to reopen.

In the three months between March 18 and July 4 when the venues were fully closed, Sunderland Culture adapted to delivering some of its programme digitally.

A lot of exhibition content, community resources and creative projects are now available online as a result.

That being said, Rebecca was keen to get the venues reopened as soon as it was safe to do so.

She says: “I think we’ve been able to reach a lot of people digitally, but there’s something about bringing people together in a space.

“That opportunity for people to go and see an exhibition or a theatre performance or a concert is really special and fundamental to what we do.”

At the time of publication, plans are still being confirmed for the full reopening of all five venues, with a phased approach currently underway.

The team at Sunderland Culture have been collecting photographs of people’s experiences throughout the pandemic to try to capture and document how the world is changing.

They are also thinking about what kind of creative responses there will be to the crisis and how these will change over time.

It’s Rebecca’s view that coronavirus will shape our culture for years to come.

She says: “I think any seismic change inspires people to look at the world differently.

“Times like this can be inspiring for artists and creatives and writers and all of us. What’s important is that there are opportunities for the work that’s created to be shown and heard.

“It’s also true that the work being created now, immediately, as this crisis is happening, will be very different to the work we create about it in four or five years when we look back.

“This is going to be part of our culture for a long time.”

Before the pandemic hit, Sunderland’s cultural landscape was changing for the better. Following the City of Culture bid in 2017, Wearside welcomed the Tall Ships race and 1.2 million visitors in 2018, before beating national competition to bring a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition to the city last year.

Sunderland Museum also recently won North East Tourist Attraction of the Year at the North East Tourism Awards.

The real change, though, is the number of new creative businesses and independents that have sprung up in recent years and which are run by local artists and musicians.

Pop Recs Ltd, for example, is an independent record store, cafe and venue set up by one of Sunderland’s best known bands – Frankie & The Heartstrings. It’s a real creative hub on the edge of the city centre.

Meanwhile, another local band, Lilliput, owns one of Sunderland’s first speciality coffee shops, Holmeside Coffee, which is now based in Sunderland Museum.

Mexico 70, an independent business dedicated to tacos, tunes and tequila, was also set up by Sunderland musician and producer Neil Bassett.

These ventures, and the many others like them, have grown organically out of the city’s creative community and are to be celebrated because they give Sunderland a kind of grassroots cultural capital that it hasn’t had before and because they inspire others of what is possible.

Rebecca says: “There have always been things in the cultural life of the city that people love but I think, increasingly, our cultural reputation is growing.

“There are some brilliant small creative companies in the city and it feels like there’s a kind of energy and momentum behind us now.

“We have 600 creative graduates coming out of the city’s university every year and we’re keen to encourage those who want to stay and set up their own business locally to do so.

“Having so many brilliant creative businesses in the city already provides role models and inspiration to help us do this.”

While Sunderland’s flourishing creative ecology is something the city can be proud of, it is by no means secure in the age of coronavirus.

Rebecca explains: “If the predictions about the scale of the economic downturn are correct, then we are going to be facing a tough few years and there is a risk that the arts get seen as a kind of optional extra.

“I think it then becomes about us all showing that it’s not a nice to have, it’s really important to people’s lives and it’s part of the recovery.”

From the independent artists, freelancers and creative businesses who produce the work to the large cultural venues that exhibit it, everyone is bracing themselves for the challenges ahead.

For Sunderland Culture, the crucial test will be whether it can safeguard what is now something of a cultural café society in a city that has never had one before.

Rebecca concludes: “This is not going to be over by the end of the month. I think building back public confidence and returning to a sense of normality is going to take a long time.

“But the arts and creativity is going to be one of the things that help us out of this, helps us get better, helps the economy recover and helps young people refine their ambition and direction.”

Sunderland Culture 

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